Bluetooth Low Energy came out of Nokia, an important innovator in mobile wireless technology. It was renamed from Wibree to Bluetooth 4.0 when it was handed over to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) which allowed it to gain adoption quickly behind the Bluetooth brand
When Apple and others picked it up to make indoor localization consumer ready, they incubated a whole industry of beacon vendors and alternative approaches to BLE for indoor localization.
In concept, Apple’s idea is the simplest (and probably here to stay). But beyond beacons lies a whole area of untapped potential by leveraging the same technology in the current crop of beacons.
Discover the Power Inside Existing Beacons
Almost all the beacons on the market have a complete Bluetooth 4.0 stack waiting to be discovered by makers and product people.
Beacons work like lighthouses, broadcasting their position into the air, so navigators can use them as guides. These Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices could broadcast other information as well such as battery power or sensor data from the environment. Since BLE devices are usually extremly low power devices running on battery, they are small and independent enough that we can attach them to anything – from plants to fridges, cars, pillows, cats, …
That idea of super low power devices being various helpers in our everyday life isn’t new. It’s called the Internet of Things (IOT), which is the catchphrase for an industry that overlaps with beacons – in fact you could claim it’s the same thing.
Enabling IoT from where we are today with beacons is rewarding, business-wise, as it moves the product from being ‘another beacon thing’ to a specific consumer use case. At the same time, it’s not technically challenging, because beacons already use IoT technology at their heart.
Using IOT To Solve Problems
The key differentiator is on product design and solving a specific problem.
Let’s take plant watering, which is something that I regularly do wrong, so i’d really like something that shows me water levels on my phone.
Consumer adoption of digital moist meter solutions were always hindered by the fact that they are expensive, power hungry, big, and ugly. Here’s the secret sauce: any Beacon has gpios. If you stick two of them into soil, you have a moist meter.
It doesn’t stop with sensors. Actuators can be driven over BLE as well. Imagine something as simple as an automated hamster feeding machine controllable from your iPhones and Androids. How about a physical door opener or something that let’s me remote start those fricking Roombas from my couch (you know, the simple things that matter!)
In fact, my team built something that let’s you do that. It’s called the airfy Beacon.
As a consumer ready iBeacon compliant device, it lets you trigger lights using the iOS proximity APIs, but it’s also a hacker device, letting you, well.. stick a bunch of wires in soil and have the thing broadcast moist levels. Check it out on Kickstarter.
Bringing the Internet TO Things
A more elaborate aspect of the Internet of Things is literally bringing the Internet to things, we call it end to end IP. Connecting tiny and cheap (read: high margin) devices directly to the unrelenting creative power of the Internet is a makers dream.
Looking at the remarkable success of the Arduino, we can learn that enabling hackers is something that can be lucrative and personally rewarding, up to becoming a legendary product.
“End to End” is a long shot, with my team working together with scientists from the Berlin FU to get there. So focusing our resources and abilities on extending the beacon ecosystem into sensors and actuator networks over bluetooth is a nice short term sprint, available to anyone who already builds beacons.
In terms of technology, BLE has already existing tools available, such as GATT, to enable announcement and data exchange.
Think of it as a way to say “I’m sort of like a button, when the user presses me, I’ll send you a message”. It’s the same thing Bluetooth mice do.
Again, the best thing about all of this: you already built it. All you need to do to change markets, is to piggyback a new use case on top of your existing Beacons.
About the Author
Arvid E. Picciani (aep) is the CTO of airfy.com, an ex-Nokia engineer, IoT pioneer, and self-proclaimed embedded devices hacker. You can find more posts by Arvid on the airfy Blog.
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